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What is process automation?

Do you want to better streamline business processes, such as freeing employees from mind-numbing repetitive tasks that add little value to their work? With process automation, it can be done. But what exactly is process automation? And what does it provide? Read on to find out.

What is process automation?

Process automation uses digital technology to automate complex business processes. The method typically has three functions: automate processes, centralize information and reduce the need for human input. Process automation is designed to remove bottlenecks, reduce errors and data loss, improve transparency and communication between departments, and increase processing speed.

Take the example of a car wash. A process that is fully automated looks something like this in such an environment:

  • The customer chooses which wash he or she wants.
  • The system requests payment from the customer.
  • It receives payment from the customer.
  • The system approves the transaction and advises the customer to enter the car wash.
  • The system identifies when the car is on the right track. It determines its position using a sensor and advises the driver to stop.
  • The software uses a series of sensors to determine the height and size of the car.
  • The program executes the pre-selected and paid program. This includes a number of variables, including rinsing, washing with soap and brushes, and waxing and blow-drying the car.
  • If completed, the system advises the customer to exit the car wash.

Although the example outlines a very simple automation, the process creates recognition. Moreover, it captures well the essence of process automation: integrating a digital transaction and customer input and turning the two into a mechanical series of automations using software, hardware and communication to an accounting system.

Process automation streamlines a system by largely removing human input. This reduces errors and increases delivery speed and quality. In addition, you minimize costs and simplify the business process. The method uses software tools, people and processes to create a fully automated workflow.

Process automation versus robotic process automation

Some people use the terms process automation and robotic process automation (RPA) interchangeably. But there are some important differences between robotic process automation (RPA) and process automation. Although they both automate business processes, that’s where the similarities end.

Traditional process automation is much broader in its applications and integrations than RPA. It includes the use of machines to perform tasks, but also reserves an important role for software, data and storage systems and integration activities. Robotized process automation, on the other hand, focuses on front-end activities and emulates work in much the same way a human would.

Process automation often requires significant input from IT engineers and developers, while robotic process automation uses robots that can be trained or are self-trained. RPA is generally used for IT functions such as answering emails, data extraction and other basic system tasks normally performed by humans.

Business process automation covers a huge range of tasks, including:

  • Managing and collecting data files;
  • automating repetitive tasks;
  • connecting and integrating data sources and services.

When would an organization use process automation?

Common processes that benefit from automation include:

  • billing;
  • Process sales orders;
  • reconcile the accounts;
  • enter data;
  • perform system queries;
  • do payroll;
  • Onboarding employees or suppliers and offboarding staff.

A typical example of a situation where process automation can be hugely beneficial? Work within a service company. Such an organization may look for a current process that has bottlenecks, is prone to errors or has gaps in the system. For example, a refrigeration service company uses the following procedure:

  • A call comes in from the customer. You note the details and manually create a task in a work system.
  • The task is taken over by an engineer who returns to the office and brings a physical piece of paper with the details on it.
  • The mechanic attends the job and writes on the worksheet the parts he used, the duration of the job, the distance traveled and any other pertinent information.
  • The engineers go home for a day. The next day they return to the office and deliver their paperwork.
  • The back office team processes the paperwork manually, updates the system, orders the parts needed and charges for the miles and parts driven.
  • When the job is done, you close the job in the billing system and send the invoice to the customer. If parts are on order or the job requires a lot of labor, this cycle can go on indefinitely.

There are pitfalls to this system: there are multiple moments in the process where information can be lost, where you can miss deadlines, leave paperwork on site or run into all sorts of other problems. Process automation removes the possibility of deviations and problems.

The integration of hardware such as smartphones allows technicians to enter and receive data electronically. GPS tracking systems allow you to take actual mileage from daily use and automatically apply it to the task.

Software plays a big role in this. For example, the engineer entering the parts used can trigger an automatic notification to order more sensors or a particular type of cable. It even becomes possible to send an alert directly to the supplier. Manual approval of purchase orders is no longer necessary because the process is fully automated and generated by the system. Once the work is completed, the information is already in the system, eliminating duplicate data entry and errors in the office.

This type of process automation can occur in any industry and is suitable for any multi-step task. Consider processes within a company that are repetitive and prone to delays, such as loan processing and approval, customer service and compliance management.

How to implement process automation

Every organization is different, but the five basic steps behind process automation actually always remain the same.

1. Identify tasks and processes you can automate

Not every task can be automated. However, there are some “quick wins,” processes that are relatively easy to automate with existing software. Consider tasks within an organization that:

  • be repetitive;
  • time sensitive;
  • relate to multiple individuals and components;
  • need audits or compliance processes;
  • affect other processes and systems within the company;
  • are rule-based, or standardized;
  • have the potential for a high return on investment.

The mission: track these tasks and create a process map showing the current system.

2. Define your organizational goals

Unless you clearly know where you want to go, your changes may not lead to positive, lasting change. The organization must decide what its goals are and how automation can help achieve them. It is also important to plan how success will be measured: fewer customer complaints, reduced lead time, or just an increase in profitability?

Once you clarify your goals, making decisions and choices becomes a lot easier: will it bring us closer to or further away from our goals?

3. Choose the right tools

This is where research comes in that helps you find the best solutions. Good research benefits from involving professionals experienced in creating successful process automation systems. The ideal system is simple and easy to understand, with intuitive interfaces and a high level of usability. It must be scalable, with an eye toward flexibility for future growth and change within the organization. It must also integrate with existing software and tooling, be able to communicate with other programs and have a clear system for dealing with data.

4. Change Management

This is perhaps the most important step in the transition to the new automation solution. By getting buy-in from staff and training employees to use the software, you ensure that people use the technology effectively and with a positive attitude.

By involving the team in the planning process, creating a feedback loop open to change from both sides and paying attention to continuing education and training, your entire organization can transition smoothly to the new process.

5. Measuring and monitoring

Your new process and the tools used should not be static. As business needs change, so must the system. Constantly monitor key performance indicators. Is performance declining? Then evaluate the process and take another critical look at the needs that are essential to the life of the system.

Benefits of process automation

With such a customized, holistic solution, process automation should yield a whole host of positives for any organization that implements it correctly. A summary of key benefits.

Transparency in management

Daily operations can quickly become all that management notices. The overarching strategy and process can get lost in the details of running the organization. By sitting down, going through process workflows and implementing process automation, owners can really see and understand the business. Clearly defined systems provide deeper insights into the business and increase the chances of greater improvements in the future.

Improve productivity

The far-reaching automation of business processes remains the key to improving the productivity of organizations. RPA alone has helped improve productivity in companies by 86 percent. Eliminating bottlenecks, removing manual, time-consuming tasks from people and seamlessly integrating everything into one automated workflow: these interventions significantly increase productivity.

Improve compliance

Whether for internal policies or external governing bodies and agencies, process automation systems improve compliance with rules and procedures. Because all processes happen automatically, there are no cuts, no missed steps and no forgotten steps in a process. If a company is concerned about governance, risk or compliance, process automation should certainly be an essential part of their daily operations.

Reduce costs

One of the most attractive benefits of process automation, is significant cost reduction. Certain companies report cost reductions of 59 percent, allowing companies to generate more revenue, reinvest in the business or grow. After less than 12 months, there is often a return on investment.

This is due to a number of factors, namely:

  • higher processing speed;
  • fewer bottlenecks and delays;
  • fewer errors;
  • free up staff time to perform other tasks.

Better staffing

When employees are busy with tedious, repetitive tasks, their qualities and knowledge are not used to their full potential. By automating these tasks and leaving them to robots and software, you give employees the opportunity and time to focus on more valuable and interesting parts of their work and the company. The result? More satisfied employees, which translates into better business results.

Fewer errors

Mistakes can be disruptive and cause problems within a company. Although receiving an order incorrectly or having an incorrect address are solvable problems, they consume a lot of valuable time. Are these problems starting to affect customers as well? Then this often has a negative impact on the entire company. It contributes to churn and creates more (unnecessary) work for staff in the long run. Automation means much less capacity for error.

Challenges of process automation

Like any process or any type of software, process automation has some challenges.

Difficult to scale up

This problem can be broken down into a series of factors:

  • Resistance to employee adoption.
  • Limitations of tools, such as not being able to process unstructured data.
  • Variations in processes or an unexpected complexity of those processes.
  • A lack of strategic direction from management.
  • Interfaces that change or automation that breaks down.

These challenges mean that many organizations are still somewhat skeptical of process automation and either do not embrace the method or do so with hesitation.

The solution? Properly complete the research phase and ensure broad adoption of the new system by your staff. The dynamic nature of business and software does mean that you need to consistently check the system for problems and, if necessary, also update it regularly. With automated software testing, you keep processes whole, while regular oversight from senior IT or management is needed to keep processes in place or to advise when to make upgrades or changes.

Implementation errors

One of the most important steps in creating a process automation is to break down all the steps of a process. Although one step in the process may be “hand file to Sarah,” there may be multiple steps in that part of the process. Has the file been cleared of irrelevant documents at that time? Is that when the employee manually enters the file number into the system? If you skip steps, the system will not work.

The solution? In the research phase, you have to break down every little step in the process. There is no room for ambiguity or moderately supported assumptions; the process must be incredibly detailed.

Trying to implement everything at once

Overhaul a huge system in one go? That’s not going to work. Success requires that you train all employees simultaneously and make and keep all software and hardware operational. This way you avoid confusion and employee disappointment.

The solution: automate one task at a time. It may even be a small part of the process. For example, if an organization changes the accounts payable process, start by automating the statements before moving on to collections. This allows for small, incremental changes and better training, increasing the chances of success. If small tasks are successful, complex business processes and more dynamic solutions are also more likely to succeed.

No goal management

Many organizations abandon the goals and key performance indicators (KPIs) they established at the beginning of the project. Is the system running once? Then they often omit tasks when checking in on workflows and continually achieving goals. However, this is when processes become non-automated. An employee realizes a step has been missed and decides to manually step in each day to complete a function. Or the task becomes so slow that a goal of a two-day process moves backward and turns into a five-day process.

The solution? Continuously monitor and improve the system. You may well need to change or modify it soon after implementation. Being open to the dynamic nature of the business is important for success and a key condition for the success of targeted process automation.

Digitaaleon can help

Do you also want to take advantage of the many benefits of process automation? Then Digitaaleon is happy to help you out. We can provide excellent support in automating all your processes. Our expertise includes design (identifying your digital needs), implementation and maintenance of value-adding process automation.

Are you curious about the possibilities? And would you like to meet with our services and people? If so, feel free to contact Digitaaleon. You can call us at +31 85 00 43 678, email us at info@digitaaleon.nl or fill out the contact form on our website.

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